20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving

“The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process).”

There are always two conversations happening in any given field. There’s the one that is being had in public, discussed in the open, opined about in columns and on Twitter. Before that conversation, though, is the one that’s had in small groups, in chats and DMs, in conference hallways or venting sessions — the conversation that’s considering opinions, ideas, and positions before moving into the light of broader debate.

One of those conversations is about how we decide when to stop trying to save a news organization.

When we’re all working so hard to make the case to the public that journalism is worth supporting, both culturally and financially, and that it has a valuable, even essential role to play in a healthy, free society — it feels like awful timing to reckon with the reality that there are outlets that practice a kind of journalism that isn’t worth preserving at all costs. It’s also terrifying timing when so many people are looking for work in the field.

There are newsrooms that have now spent decades continuing down a stubborn path. Every new diversity initiative, each new practice that nudges the field toward representation, access, and inclusion, prompts only the most marginal improvements in their staffing or framing. All the thinkpieces or academic research on impact for audiences, society, or democracy barely register.

We’re rallying millions of dollars in the name of saving journalism, and yet so few newsrooms can be bothered to respond to a diversity survey that funders had to make a special appeal to get newsrooms to participate.

How and when do we decide between trying to save the newsrooms that have shown no interest in being better and focusing on helping develop and support the new and willing existing organizations that are putting in the effort and work to be diverse, to be collaborative, to prioritize audience needs over platform demands, and to actively defend against the attempts of powerful interests to weaponize the news cycle?

Those side conversations will soon move from private messages to the main stage.

Of the many lenses through which we can consider what journalism is and what it could be, there are two that are constantly on my mind.

There’s the accountability mechanism of an independent press — the information system that helps people navigate their decisions, the narrative connection that facilitates our exposure to and understanding of one another. This is journalism that serves. This is why the notions of journalism and the press endure across time and geography. This is what caused the organizers of a fledgling nation to protect the freedom of the press as essential to a free, healthy, and functioning society.

Then there’s the industry of news media — the one that packages up journalism as a product (in the truly commercial sense of the word) and trades on it (and its attendant audiences and their marketability) as a commodity, cloaked in the nobility of the mission, protected by a First Amendment designed for the service, while steeped in many of the same industrial misdeeds that many other corporations commit. (Think resisting unions, discriminating against people of color, protecting abusive men, failing to adequately compensate employees, exploiting freelancers, inadequately protecting workers from the hazards of the job, offering sub-standard benefits and working conditions, promoting leaders based on political maneuvering and old-school social networks, and on and on.)

We’ll someday have to reckon with the fact that, while the work of journalism is essential, it’s actually an awful bargain for the majority of people doing the work. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that many of the organizations that do badly by their employees don’t always do the best by their audiences.)

To be clear, I’m not arguing that practitioners of journalism shouldn’t concern themselves with building sustainable businesses. Newsrooms have a responsibility to innovate and seek ethical and sustainable business practices. I’m saying there’s a difference between building a sustainable organization that serves its constituents through the process of journalism, and building or shoring up businesses that package up news content and audience attention as a commercial product and prioritize that over serving the informational needs of audiences.

Can the latter do quality journalism? Of course, we’ve seen it. But we’ve also seen misses exceed the hits. We’ve seen communities damaged by negligence, people harmed by discriminatory narratives, and more accurate — and difficult — nuance discarded for bombastic simplicity. We’ve seen news weaponized, both by outsiders and from the inside. We’ve seen news that actually serves the public, and we’ve seen arguably more that serves power instead.

Sometimes these dual roles exist in the same newsrooms. Other times, there are clear signs of which organizations are which.

The newsroom that publishes an accessible and clear explainer of the ballot for an upcoming election is doing the service of journalism. The newsroom that runs the breathless account of winners and losers from a televised debate is participating in the industry’s attention marketplace. The newsrooms that report out a politician’s claims before amplifying them are doing journalism. The newsroom that rapidly retweets false claims are jumping at bait in exchange for attention.

As we continue to grapple with the questions of how to make journalism sustainable, we must also grapple with what kind of journalism should be sustained.

Is it the entities themselves? Some are owned by billionaires, while many are owned by conglomerates that certainly more concerned with the “industry” half of the news industry. Is it the institutions, many of which are legacy newsrooms with storied histories and shamefully incremental movement in the diversity of their teams and a myopic view of their proximity to and enabling of power structures invested in the status quo? Is it the identity of being a capital-J Journalist — often ordained by a college degree, an unpaid internship or three, sights set on New York or D.C., and occasionally a knee-jerk need to attack anyone who attempts to question your practices because “that’s called journalism,” and not to do so would risk acknowledging one’s own participation in historic practices that may have caused harm?

Institutions and identities are inherently resistant to change. Processes, however, can change, adapt, and evolve. Processes can be transparent, humble, and accountable. Processes can be collaborative, equitable, and inclusive. Processes can shift people from being the object of journalism to the subject — active, accountable participants.

Focusing on what is done and how it’s done, and making those processes more accessible to a broader swath of people, is a far more effective path to larger, systemic changes that last.

This is why some of the brightest, most effective journalistic work is done by people and organizations who are thinking deeply and carefully about how they do what they do, who gets to be involved, and what needs are served by the work.

The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process). How we answer that question will have a profound impact on the management of newsrooms, the business models we develop, the processes we adapt, and the service we provide.

Over the coming year, we’ll see a rapid evolution in the processes of journalism, one that asserts a more inclusive, representational and service-driven orientation. New organizations — and existing newsrooms motivated to change — will become more flexible and nimble in their consideration of how they do what they do and their accountability for the same. We’ll experiment with adopting new practices and continue to embrace more openness and collaboration with others in the field and those outside of it as we include our communities and engaged audiences to take part — not just as recipients or story leads, but as people with an active role to play in the process of journalism.

Heather Bryant is founder and director of Project Facet.

There are always two conversations happening in any given field. There’s the one that is being had in public, discussed in the open, opined about in columns and on Twitter. Before that conversation, though, is the one that’s had in small groups, in chats and DMs, in conference hallways or venting sessions — the conversation that’s considering opinions, ideas, and positions before moving into the light of broader debate.

One of those conversations is about how we decide when to stop trying to save a news organization.

When we’re all working so hard to make the case to the public that journalism is worth supporting, both culturally and financially, and that it has a valuable, even essential role to play in a healthy, free society — it feels like awful timing to reckon with the reality that there are outlets that practice a kind of journalism that isn’t worth preserving at all costs. It’s also terrifying timing when so many people are looking for work in the field.

There are newsrooms that have now spent decades continuing down a stubborn path. Every new diversity initiative, each new practice that nudges the field toward representation, access, and inclusion, prompts only the most marginal improvements in their staffing or framing. All the thinkpieces or academic research on impact for audiences, society, or democracy barely register.

We’re rallying millions of dollars in the name of saving journalism, and yet so few newsrooms can be bothered to respond to a diversity survey that funders had to make a special appeal to get newsrooms to participate.

How and when do we decide between trying to save the newsrooms that have shown no interest in being better and focusing on helping develop and support the new and willing existing organizations that are putting in the effort and work to be diverse, to be collaborative, to prioritize audience needs over platform demands, and to actively defend against the attempts of powerful interests to weaponize the news cycle?

Those side conversations will soon move from private messages to the main stage.

Of the many lenses through which we can consider what journalism is and what it could be, there are two that are constantly on my mind.

There’s the accountability mechanism of an independent press — the information system that helps people navigate their decisions, the narrative connection that facilitates our exposure to and understanding of one another. This is journalism that serves. This is why the notions of journalism and the press endure across time and geography. This is what caused the organizers of a fledgling nation to protect the freedom of the press as essential to a free, healthy, and functioning society.

Then there’s the industry of news media — the one that packages up journalism as a product (in the truly commercial sense of the word) and trades on it (and its attendant audiences and their marketability) as a commodity, cloaked in the nobility of the mission, protected by a First Amendment designed for the service, while steeped in many of the same industrial misdeeds that many other corporations commit. (Think resisting unions, discriminating against people of color, protecting abusive men, failing to adequately compensate employees, exploiting freelancers, inadequately protecting workers from the hazards of the job, offering sub-standard benefits and working conditions, promoting leaders based on political maneuvering and old-school social networks, and on and on.)

We’ll someday have to reckon with the fact that, while the work of journalism is essential, it’s actually an awful bargain for the majority of people doing the work. (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that many of the organizations that do badly by their employees don’t always do the best by their audiences.)

To be clear, I’m not arguing that practitioners of journalism shouldn’t concern themselves with building sustainable businesses. Newsrooms have a responsibility to innovate and seek ethical and sustainable business practices. I’m saying there’s a difference between building a sustainable organization that serves its constituents through the process of journalism, and building or shoring up businesses that package up news content and audience attention as a commercial product and prioritize that over serving the informational needs of audiences.

Can the latter do quality journalism? Of course, we’ve seen it. But we’ve also seen misses exceed the hits. We’ve seen communities damaged by negligence, people harmed by discriminatory narratives, and more accurate — and difficult — nuance discarded for bombastic simplicity. We’ve seen news weaponized, both by outsiders and from the inside. We’ve seen news that actually serves the public, and we’ve seen arguably more that serves power instead.

Sometimes these dual roles exist in the same newsrooms. Other times, there are clear signs of which organizations are which.

The newsroom that publishes an accessible and clear explainer of the ballot for an upcoming election is doing the service of journalism. The newsroom that runs the breathless account of winners and losers from a televised debate is participating in the industry’s attention marketplace. The newsrooms that report out a politician’s claims before amplifying them are doing journalism. The newsroom that rapidly retweets false claims are jumping at bait in exchange for attention.

As we continue to grapple with the questions of how to make journalism sustainable, we must also grapple with what kind of journalism should be sustained.

Is it the entities themselves? Some are owned by billionaires, while many are owned by conglomerates that certainly more concerned with the “industry” half of the news industry. Is it the institutions, many of which are legacy newsrooms with storied histories and shamefully incremental movement in the diversity of their teams and a myopic view of their proximity to and enabling of power structures invested in the status quo? Is it the identity of being a capital-J Journalist — often ordained by a college degree, an unpaid internship or three, sights set on New York or D.C., and occasionally a knee-jerk need to attack anyone who attempts to question your practices because “that’s called journalism,” and not to do so would risk acknowledging one’s own participation in historic practices that may have caused harm?

Institutions and identities are inherently resistant to change. Processes, however, can change, adapt, and evolve. Processes can be transparent, humble, and accountable. Processes can be collaborative, equitable, and inclusive. Processes can shift people from being the object of journalism to the subject — active, accountable participants.

Focusing on what is done and how it’s done, and making those processes more accessible to a broader swath of people, is a far more effective path to larger, systemic changes that last.

This is why some of the brightest, most effective journalistic work is done by people and organizations who are thinking deeply and carefully about how they do what they do, who gets to be involved, and what needs are served by the work.

The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process). How we answer that question will have a profound impact on the management of newsrooms, the business models we develop, the processes we adapt, and the service we provide.

Over the coming year, we’ll see a rapid evolution in the processes of journalism, one that asserts a more inclusive, representational and service-driven orientation. New organizations — and existing newsrooms motivated to change — will become more flexible and nimble in their consideration of how they do what they do and their accountability for the same. We’ll experiment with adopting new practices and continue to embrace more openness and collaboration with others in the field and those outside of it as we include our communities and engaged audiences to take part — not just as recipients or story leads, but as people with an active role to play in the process of journalism.

Heather Bryant is founder and director of Project Facet.

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